“Poverty is a relatively mild disease for even a very flimsy American soul, but uselessness will kill strong and weak souls alike, and kill every time.” –Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
Preamble: A capuchin monkey living in a zoo somewhere–I don’t actually know where–has nothing to do with what I’m about to write. On face, it is entirely irrelevant to my purpose. It might take offense at this if I bothered to tell it such a thing and might even fling poo at me, but I’m not going to tell it anything precisely because it is not relevant.
The good people of Walla Walla were displeased when Starbucks came to town at the turn of the century. It wasn’t just that they already had a local coffee shop–two of them, by some measures–but also that Starbucks, being a den of iniquity, was also open on Sundays. But between the heathen carpetbaggers that were buying up farmland for vineyards, the debauched tourists that visited the wineries, and the pagan college students, there was a market for Starbucks in Walla Walla and so it thrived.
When Hochschild writes in Strangers in Their Own Land that “a blue-collar way of life was going out of fashion, and with it, the honor attached to a rooted self and pride in endurance—the deep story self. The liberal upper-middle class saw community as insularity and closed-mindedness rather than as a source of belonging and honor,” it’s important to actually define what honor is and realize that it’s been opposed to capital for centuries.
Looking to Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, we get that honor is not a specific virtue internal to an individual, but rather the signifier of a relationship between an individual and their community; it is the social recognition of an individual’s reliable commitment to fulfilling a social role that establishes, maintains, or restores the social order. So society has to recognize the value of a role being played and then also recognize the quality of an individual playing that role in such a way that anybody else in that society knows what to expect from the individual based on their known social role. The importance of honor is bound to the importance of reliability. Soldiers must be honorable because their lives are dependent on the reliability of the other soldiers in their group; they are then honorably discharged. Judges must be honorable to reliably ensure the rule of law to maintain order in society; they are hailed as honorable when they enter their court.
Honor is nested in tribalism, in the recognition that the individual can never be secure unto themself but that a reliable community can provide for continuity. The ancient text of Gilgamesh, in which bad king becomes a king to be proud of before learning that personal virtue will not stave off death contextualizes the individual within the society: it begins by inviting the reader to see
…the holy Eanna Temple and the massive wall of Uruk, which no city on earth can equal. See how its ramparts gleam like copper in the sun. Climb the stone staircase, more ancient than the mind can imagine, approach the Eanna Temple, sacred to Ishtar, a temple that no king has equaled in size or beauty, walk on the wall of Uruk, follow its course around the city, inspect its mighty foundations, examine its brickwork, how masterfully it is built, observe the land it encloses: the palm trees, the gardens, the orchards, the glorious palaces and temples, the shops …
And it concludes with Gilgamesh, having utterly failed in his own actions to overcome his mortality, bringing the outsider Urshanabi back to his city and inviting him into the order of things:
This is the wall of Uruk, which no city on earth can equal. See how its ramparts gleam like copper in the sun. Climb the stone staircase, more ancient than the mind can imagine, approach the Eanna Temple, sacred to Ishtar, a temple that no king has equaled in size or beauty, walk on the wall of Uruk, follow its course around the city, inspect its mighty foundations, examine its brickwork, how masterfully it is built, observe the land it encloses: the palm trees, the gardens, the orchards, the glorious palaces and temples, the shops and marketplaces, the houses, the public squares.
And coming from this mindset, what we owe to the history and ancestry from which we have inherited our culture and civilization is to behave honorably so that the culture and civilization that outlasted our predecessors will continue to outlast us. And it’s easy to get caught up in this, to join in a participation mystique at the wonder of the group; it’s a deep response to want to belong, to want to be relevant to a group that will make us secure enough. In Thus Spake Zarathrustra, Nietzsche describes the meta-system of what qualifies as honorable in a society:
It is laudable, what they think hard; what is indispensable and hard they call good; and what relieveth in the direst distress, the unique and hardest of all,—they extol as holy. Whatever maketh them rule and conquer and shine, to the dismay and envy of their neighbors, they regard as the high and foremost thing, the test and the meaning of all else.
But the flip-side to a long-cultivated culture that provides an extensive definition of honor as a condition to social inclusion is that it’s easy to step outside of it. The old Jewish laws against homosexuality were similarly against eating bacon-cheeseburgers, for example. The problem with honor is that the more ways there are to deviate from it, the fewer people will have it until nobody remains to honor the most reliable people. It is not uncommon for the dogmatic rules-laden so-called fundamentalist churches of America collapse when the patriarch of one clan gets in a feud with the patriarch of another clan over some alleged slight, resulting in the less-combative clan abandoning the church in apparent dishonor.
But where there are many dishonored people, there is also a market opportunity for chain coffee shops to be open on the sabbath.
This isn’t new at all; in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, honor is in the common parlance of most characters except for the culturally and religiously excluded Jewish moneylender, Shylock, who reserves his only recognition of honor for the judge who he expects to uphold his contract against the people that were constantly slighting him and treating him with dishonor despite their reliance on his fiscal resources. Yet on the basis of the culturally-honorable religion of Christianity, the Jewish outsider is barred from legal recourse, of course: “if thou dost shed One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods Are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate Unto the state of Venice.” But the point is that there has long been a tension between the tangible capital and the intangible honor.
Part of the mythos of capitalism is that it has a “universalizing” mission, as Chibber derisively recounts in Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. On this I agree with Chibber: it does not. The teleos of capital is to grant its wielder universal access without granting universal participation. It is, like knowledge or honor, a power desirable in that it allows social action that other people are barred from engaging in. But Chibber shortchanges capital in his wholesale dismissal of Guha’s historically dubious claims, puns intended: when too many people were excluded from a social order and moved to overturn the order, the tangible currency flooded into the transactional gaps created by the unreliability of honor in a time of instability. And, over time, capital has generally displaced honor as the foundation of social stability because with its disregard for history and legacy, capital appears to be more inclusive than it actually is. As Michaels explains:
One of the first major works of neoliberal economics by an American is Becker’s [The] Economics of Discrimination, which is designed precisely to show that in competitive economies you can’t afford to discriminate. Foucault sort of marks the beginning of neoliberalism in Europe with the horror at what the Nazi state did and the recognition that you can legitimize the state in a much more satisfactory manner by making it the guardian of competitive markets rather than the guardian of the German volk. And today’s orthodoxy is the idea that social justice consists above all in defense of property and the attack of discrimination. … the model of social justice is not that the rich don’t make as much and the poor make more, the model of social justice is that the rich make whatever they make, but an appropriate percentage of them are minorities or women.
But how then do we account for what was lost? Hochschild provides hints as to what scraps of remembered honor litter the economically blighted landscape: one interviewee positively says “They used to brag on my dad at the plant that he was so reliable and steady”; another interviewee negatively says “If you flee, in my mind, you’re a traitor unto yourself.” Hochschild writes about the locals loss of ecosystem to industrial pollution as if it were the fall of Uruk with her aging interviewees finding no consolation for their mortality.
Returning to Chibber, however, I would suggest that this sociological study could be recast as a subaltern study of a culture that got colonized by capital. Chibber explains the subaltern perspective against the common bourgeois-subsidized narratives:
The language of a recognizably bourgeois politics will not be universal. Indeed, the assumption that politics is organized around the rational pursuit of individual interests becomes problematic. Often politics will be waged in religious language and around religious issues. Furthermore, the dominant axis will typically be community/ethnicity, not individual or class interests.
To put it another way, in order to understand why residents of states like Louisiana or Kansas often vote against their economic self-interest, us dishonorable neoliberals must first realize that they’re not economically self-interested. If they were economically self-interested, then they wouldn’t still be in Louisiana or Kansas.
I had–past tense, hail Eris–a brother-in-law in Walla Walla whose father had come from a dishonorable background but had set down roots and built up a business and the family name but was not a good person or a good father. My ex-brother-in-law worked for his father’s business and was likely to inherit the business at some point, but while he received many perks as a son from the man who was exploiting his labor for profit, a paycheck sufficient to the needs of his family was not one of them, and this was a source of ongoing tension and strife between him and his father, a fault line in the family. I remember my ex-brother-in-law as being a nice guy and a hard-working family man of the sort that could probably carve a niche and be successful wherever he went, so I was confused about why he stayed to suffer chronic disrespect and shortchanging by his father. The reason was nothing more than that their name meant something in Walla Walla. Having had parents and grandparents that moved as necessary for economic opportunity, I didn’t understand this and I’m not sure I really understand it still.
But I do know that as the strain of maintaining their small-town family honor dragged on them, they started buying lattes on Sunday.
The particular problem, then, is not just “economic anxiety” but rather the loss of one social currency, honor, while being generally excluded from its socioeconomic substitute as is a warning for the precarious edge of capitalism. The bourgeoisie politicians say they want to promote job growth, but most people hate their jobs–that’s why they have to be bribed with paychecks to do them. No, the point of a job is to gain access to a social currency be it money or–“They used to brag on my dad at the plant that he was so reliable and steady”–honor.
I would propose that what social honor feels like to an individual is relevance, that the honor of a role signifies the relevance of the person filling it. The glories of Uruk are what preserve the relevance of Gilgamesh. People spend their disposable income on social relevance; Veblen’s “conspicuous consumption” fills in the gaps of missing social honor. And while Network some 40 years ago warned us that capitalism was uprooting the relevance of the individual in society, today Dr. Bell notices that we’re afraid of being irrelevant to the machines we’re building as demonstrated by cultural artifacts like Ex Machina and Her.
The dishonorable mercenary labor force–comprised of short-term beneficiaries of neoliberalism such as myself–is reassured that there will always be work for us to do as we automate social roles out of existence. In 2001, I eliminated a huge swathe of the accounts payable department. Now we’re seeing artificial intelligence lawyers and insurance adjusters shutting humans out of the white-collar job market. The politicians assure us that we can just re-train people to get them back into the labor force, but when IBM’s Watson starts displacing doctors with a decade of specialized education and outstanding student loans to match, what re-training can we really hope for?
My employer tells us that we should be driving our careers in one memo and extols the glories of self-driving cars in the next with the baffling obtuseness of a brain-damaged goldfish. Because we’re deep enough into this late stage of capitalism that the executive class can be corrosively sloppy in their maintenance of the privileged social control class, that they can be careless enough to treat us like that irrelevant capuchin monkey I mentioned that, despite its irrelevance, is still right where we left it.
So, on the one hand, I can say that I still don’t fully grasp why my former brother-in-law stayed where he was and put up with small-town psychodrama in the name of family honor back when his job market was strong. But on the other, those of us who expected to maneuver our peculiar skilled labor to be more equitably exploited by capital over time may soon run out of moves to make. So, to put a point on it: That, above and beyond the election of an thin-skinned orange bourgeois’abe troll to an office full of red buttons that ought never be pressed, is what worries me about the future.
At the end of Goethe’s Faust, when Faust dies–oh, sorry, spoiler alert–he ponders what it means that his grand plan of reclaiming land from the ocean for a secure and prosperous city to thrive upon was incomplete.
I work that millions may possess this space,
If not secure, a free and active race.
Here man and beast, in green and fertile fields,
Will know the joys that new-won region yields,
Will settle on the firm slopes of a hill
Raised by a bold and zealous people’s skill.
A paradise our closed-in land provides,
Though to its margin rage the blustering tides;
When they eat through, in fierce devouring flood,
All swiftly join to make the damage good…
Such busy, teeming throngs I long to see,
Standing on freedom’s soil, a people free.
The honored king Gilgamesh is able to accept his mortality by knowing that his great city will survive him. The wealthy capitalist Faust dies on the edge of satisfaction with hope for the people who will survive him. The modern neoliberal executive class engages in tax inversions and shirks employee pensions and health care. It seems to me that this might be a collectively short-sighted existential mistake that thousands of years of civilization might warn them against. But if they won’t listen to the prophetic advice of our history, they’re not going to listen to me repeating it.
So now it’s clear that even those of us privileged, skilled and lucky enough to be affluent this year are going to be struggling to make our lives relevant despite capital instead of along with it. It’s a daunting prospect, but this is why we practice building contingency plans–that are currently all some variation of “take the money and run,” but what did you really expect from a guy who drinks espresso even on Sunday?